The snarling, possibly rabid, five hundred pound grizzly bear lurking in the trees was the final straw.
Hailey Genest stopped in her tracks, staring at the area of the forest where she’d heard the rustling. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a grizzly bear. She didn’t think Maine had grizzlies, even deep in the woods. It was probably only a black bear, but it was a really big one.
“I think it was a chipmunk,” her buddy system partner said.
Hailey turned her stare on Tori Burns, who’d talked her into this stupid wilderness adventure. “I hate you so much right now.”
Tori grinned. “Your mascara’s smudging.”
“Why are we friends again?”
“Because you came into the diner during my shift and whined about being the last single woman on the entire planet because all of your friends have found their soul mates. When I pointed out I’m single, you decided we should be friends.”
She hadn’t been whining. She’d just had a rough day and hadn’t felt like she could call her friends to vent because they were all probably greeting their menfolk at the door. And, yes, she had imagined them in aprons and pearls just because she could.
“First Paige married Mitch, then Lauren ran off to Massachusetts and married Ryan, and Katie’s living with Josh.” Hailey snorted and crossed her arms. “Those damn Kowalski men stole all my women.”
Tori sighed. “And now I’m friends with a woman who wears makeup and new hiking boots on a wilderness adventure.”
“The better I look, the better I feel and I thought I’d need the boost.” She looked down at her feet, trying not to wince. “Pretty sure my blisters are reaching horror movie proportions, though.”
“I told you it would be better to wear sneakers than brand new hiking boots.”
“I wanted to be fashionable.”
“Yes, because limping is totally the new black.”
Hailey took a few steps, trying to ignore how much her feet, calves and every other part of her body hurt, but then she stopped. “Listen.”
After several seconds, Tori frowned. “I can’t hear the others anymore.”
“Not even the woman who sounds like she has a built-in megaphone and sucked helium for breakfast. They left us behind.” Even as she said the words, which should have been cause for concern, Hailey felt a pang of relief.
If the group had left them behind, there was no pressure to keep up, which was something she’d been failing at miserably for at least a mile. She considered herself to be in good shape, but hiking for miles over uneven ground in the woods was kicking her butt. And they still had paddling canoes to look forward to, just to make sure her arms and back ached as much as her legs tomorrow.
Since her usual daily workout was pushing a cart of books from the night drop box back into the library, she could only wonder what she’d been thinking. Or drinking.
“If we hurry, we can catch them.” Tori cast a doubtful glance at Hailey’s feet. “If it helps, we get to sit in the canoes.”
The thought of being off her feet did help a little, so Hailey did her best to keep up with her new friend. Tori wasn’t very tall, but she walked with a long, confident stride that was hard to match. Trying to ignore how her impending blisters and the muscles in the backs of her calves were having a contest to see which could burn the worst, Hailey put one foot in front of the other and tried not to stumble over roots.
After what felt like miles, Tori stopped in a clearing and shook her head. There were several paths in front of them and they all looked the same degree of disturbed. No matter how hard she looked, Hailey couldn’t tell which one their group had taken.
“Aren’t they supposed to break off tree branches or something to point the way?” she asked.
“We weren’t kidnapped by Magua. We just didn’t keep up. I think if the tour guides noticed they’d lost us, they would have waited rather than leave signs for us to interpret.”
Hailey slapped herself in the face, then grimaced. “I’m going to need a blood transfusion before we get out of these woods.”
“I have some Deep Woods Off in my pack. You want it?”
“No. I already have bug repellent on.” She waved at a particularly persistent black fly. “It’s all natural and it nourishes my skin. It smells good, too.”
“Too bad it doesn’t keep the bugs away.”
“The comments on Pinterest said it wasn’t quite as effective as the chemical versions, but did I mention it’s nourishing?”
Tori snorted. “And now you’re nourishing the black flies.”
“I suck at being outside.”
“You are surprisingly bad at it for somebody born and raised in rural Maine.”
“Whitford’s rural, but it’s not this rural.” Hailey wanted to point out her parents had chosen Whitford, not her, but a bug almost flew into her mouth, so she closed it.
“Well.” Tori put her hands on her hips. “We’re lost.”
Matt Barnett leaned against a tree trunk and imagined himself at a crossroads. To the left was the low road. He could continue his walk in peace, making his way back to camp. Crack a beer with his old man. Drop a line in the river.
To the right was the high road, which meant approaching the two women whose voices carried through the trees like sirens. The fire truck kind, not the beautiful women luring sailors onto the rocks. They were lost, and rescuing damsels in distress wasn’t on his vacation agenda.
Then again, vacations weren’t supposed to have agendas. And as much as he wanted to kick back in his favorite fishing chair with a beer, it wasn’t in his nature to leave two women alone in the woods. Unless, of course, they’d done it on purpose and it didn’t sound like that was the case here.
With a weary sigh, he pushed off the tree and made his way to the women. He stepped out onto the path in front of them and had to give them credit for not screaming. They both yelped a little and the brunette dug her fingernails into the blonde’s arm, but no full-blown hysterics.
He couldn’t really blame them for being startled. Being on the downside of a two week vacation, Matt was looking more than a little rough. The jeans and flannel shirt were common enough, but his lucky fishing hat was nothing short of disgusting after years of wear. His hair had been overdue for a cut before the vacation even started, and he hadn’t shaved since the last day he worked. If he’d been holding an axe, the women probably would have fainted.
“You ladies lost?”
“Nope.” It was the brunette who spoke. She looked him straight in the eye while she lied. “We’re all set, but thanks.”
“Where you heading?”
This time it was the blonde who spoke, and she pointed at a spot over his shoulder. “Since we’re facing that way, probably that way. Now if you’ll excuse us, we—”
“Sound carries in the woods, so I know you’re lost.” He had a cabin and a dwindling vacation to get back to. “I’m Matt Barnett. I have a cabin a couple miles from here. I’ve been coming here my whole life and I haven’t buried a single body in the woods yet.”
“We totally believe you,” the brunette said. “Because serial killers always start the conversation with how many bodies they’ve disposed of.”
Even though there was a touch of humor in her voice, he noticed neither of them relaxed, which was good. Women shouldn’t trust strange men who popped out of the tree line. But he also wanted to get this show on the road. If he had to tell them he was a game warden, he would, but he’d try to avoid it if he could. That, more often than not, led to questions and complaints and friends of friends who’d been cited and could he just look into that? He didn’t want to go there, if possible.
“Let’s go with the theory I’m not a serial killer for a few minutes,” he said. “I’m not leaving you stranded in the woods, so the way I see it you ladies have two options. You can let me lead, which means I’ll be in front of you and you can keep an eye on me, or I can shadow you, which means you won’t be able to see me, but I’ll be able to see you. That would be creepy.”
“Or we could run,” the blonde said.
He’d always been partial to brunettes in the past, and this one should have caught his eye. She was cute and had the potential to be a real firecracker, but for some reason it was the blonde who kept snagging his attention. Nothing about her—from the makeup she’d put on her face for a trek through the woods to the brand new boots on her feet—was his type.
And she was looking at him like he’d just crawled out from behind a Dumpster. He’d seen that look before and he tended to not like women who aimed it his way.
She could probably run. The jeans and the form-fitting fleece zip-up she was wearing accented the fact she was in nice shape. But those boots had to be hurting her and the way her makeup was smearing around her pretty brown eyes told him she’d been sweating. If walking through the woods was an effort for her, running would be a joke.
“Pretty sure I could catch you.”
The brunette snickered. “Of course you’d catch her. I’m faster than her, plus everybody knows the blondes always die first.”
“You guys are hilarious,” her friend muttered.
“I’m Tori,” the brunette said. “And this is Hailey. We’ve gotten separated from our group and, at the rate we’re going, I’m not sure we’ll ever catch up.”
Progress, finally. “Which outfit are you with?”
“Dagneau Adventure Tours.”
Keeping a straight face was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Those boys had moments of competence, but they’d inherited the business from their father and were in it solely to thumb their noses at nine-to-five jobs. He thought they were idiots, personally. “Did you research Dagneau Adventure Tours before you signed up?”
“They had a great website,” Hailey said.
Tori nodded. “And they offered the specific package we were looking for.”
“What package was that?”
He watched Hailey try to jam her friend’s ribs with her elbow, but Tori easily evaded it. “We wanted an adventure geared toward celebrating being single. Like, no couples stuff.”
So the pretty blonde was single. Not that it mattered, but it was a tidbit of information his brain seemed to want to file away, just in case.
“In the future, you should get referrals and ask for references,” he said. “You shouldn’t take the company’s word for it when it comes to your safety. Especially when it comes to the outdoors. Nature’s pretty, but can be a real bitch at times.”
“Thank you, Jeremiah Johnson,” Hailey muttered, and when she blushed under his hard look, he assumed she hadn’t meant for him to hear it.
“Tell me what the itinerary was, starting with where you parked,” he said to Tori, choosing to ignore the implication he was some kind of hermit backwoodsman.
Once she’d laid out the plan for the day, Matt was faced with another decision. It was really six of one, half dozen of another as to whether it made more sense to help them find their group or take them out of the woods. But Hailey looked as if she’d had enough adventure for the day and, even though she didn’t seem to like him very much, it went against his nature to see a woman miserable and not try to make it better.
“I think it’s closer to head back to your car than to try to meet up with your group. Especially since your car won’t be moving away from us while we’re trying to catch it.”
Tori waved her hand. “Lead on, then.”
Hailey hesitated. “It seems wrong to just leave. What if they come back to look for us?”
“They deserve it,” Tori said. “For leaving us.”
“Maybe the idiots in charge do, but not the rest of the women.”
Matt sighed. Leave it to the Dagneau boys to come up with a way to get a bunch of single women into the woods. He made a mental note to have a closer look at their business and maybe rustle through their paperwork as he pulled his satellite phone out of the holster on his hip.
“Your phone works out here?”
“It’s a satellite phone.” It was a personal phone, in addition to the work cellphone he’d been issued. “My family spends a lot of time up here and I don’t like being cut off from the world.”
He started walking as he called into dispatch and asked them to relay to the Dagneau brothers that two of their guests had been lost and found. When he was done, he put the phone away and then looked over his shoulder to see how the women were faring.
They were still where he’d left them, and he was already too far away to make out their expressions. He held up his hands in a what are you waiting for motion and then had to wait while they caught up.
“We weren’t sure if you wanted privacy for your phone call,” Hailey explained. “Sorry.”
He hadn’t missed her wincing as she approached, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He certainly wasn’t carrying her back to her car and he couldn’t get his truck close enough to where they were to make a difference. By ATV he could, but it would take longer to go get it, get back and make individual trips with the women than it was worth. She’d have to suck it up.
“Let’s go, ladies.” He set off down the path, keeping a slightly slower than moderate pace and pointing out rocks and roots in the path.
Hailey was never going on an adventure again. Okay, maybe not never, but it would be a while and next time it wouldn’t involve hiking boots or bug repellant.
Only by sheer force of will did she bite back the complaints about her feet hurting. And the bug bites. And the fact she was starving. For reasons she couldn’t even begin to explain, she didn’t want their flannel-clad hero to think any less of her than he already did.
But she didn’t do a very good job of killing the sigh of relief when Matt stopped and gestured toward a fallen log. “Sit a few minutes. Have a drink. You do have water, right?”
Nodding, Tori pulled a bottle from the small backpack she was wearing and offered it to Hailey. They sat side-by-side on the log and shared the water bottle back and forth, and she arched an eyebrow when Matt pulled a flask out of his back pocket. If the guy was drinking, maybe they shouldn’t be following him around the woods.
“Just water,” he said, amusement evident in the set of his mouth. “I promise.”
Hailey groaned as tiny bugs seemed to realize she’d stopped moving and invited hundreds of their closest friends to the party. She tried waving them away, but she knew it was futile. “The black flies aren’t supposed to be bad yet.”
“You can blame the winter we had.”
Hailey wasn’t sure what winter had to do with getting the black flies riled up earlier than usual, and she suspected if she asked, she’d get a long and boring science lesson. Instead, she pushed herself up and then hauled Tori to her feet. “Let’s keep moving.”
At least the view wasn’t bad while they were walking, Hailey had to admit to herself. Matt Barnett might be way too scruffy from the neck up, but his lower eighty percent was a treat. Tall and nicely built without being bulky, he had the kind of broad shoulders she found attractive in a man.
The flannel shirt he was wearing over what looked like a T-shirt didn’t allow her to see his torso, but she’d bet it was as nicely firm as his legs. And his ass. Sometimes the shirt would lift and she could make out the bulges in his back pockets. One she now knew was his water flask and she assumed the other was his wallet. He was wearing things on his belt, too. She could make out shapes under the shirt, but not enough to tell what they were. One was presumably a holster for his satellite phone. What he had on the other hip, she couldn’t guess. Probably some kind of super Boy Scout rescue kit.
“I recognize that pile of rocks,” Tori said after a while. “We’re almost back to the parking lot.”
As much as watching Matt walk didn’t suck, Hailey was glad to hear it. “I’m going to soak in a hot bubble bath for an hour. I can’t believe we’re missing movie night for this.”
Tori shook her head. “We talked about this. We’re sick of watching movies about women who are only happy in the end if they’ve found a man who loves them. We’re out in the woods, embracing being strong, fun, single women. Or we were supposed to be, anyway.”
If only there was buffalo chicken dip in the woods. “How did we come to the conclusion going on an adventure tour in the wilderness was the best way to embrace being single women?”
“It made sense after the second glass of wine.”
“Wouldn’t watching whatever movie we wanted illustrate a happy single woman more than walking in the woods?”
“Maybe it was the third glass.” Tori leaned closer, dropping her voice to just above a whisper. “He’s kind of hot, and he looks at you a lot. You should ask him out.”
“He looks at us both a lot since, you know, we’re the only two other people here and it would be weird to look at trees while he’s talking to us. Besides, the whole Grizzly Adams thing he has going on does nothing for me.”
“Who’s Grizzly Adams?”
Hailey shook her head. “Further evidence you’re too young to be my friend.”
“Hey, you picked me. And speaking of, who’s Jeremiah Johnson?”
“For crap’s sake, Tori. Really? They’re from TV and movies. Famous scruffy mountain men hermit types.”
“I don’t think Matt’s a hermit. He has a satellite phone.”
That might impress Tori, but Hailey wasn’t looking for a guy who spent enough time in the middle of nowhere to need a satellite phone. She wanted a man who wore suits and didn’t roll his eyes at the thought of museums or operas. He’d have the kind of job that brought not only big paychecks, but benefits and Christmas parties Hailey could dress up for.
That guy wasn’t in Whitford, or if he was, he was hiding from Hailey. She’d joked a few times about moving to the city to find her Prince Charming, but she couldn’t bring herself to actually do it. She loved her job and her house. And the people of Whitford. She loved her life.
She just wanted somebody to share it with and, no matter how good Matt looked from the back, he had no chance of being that guy.
Hailey almost cried when they broke out of the tree line and she saw Tori’s car in the parking lot. Padded seats, climate control and no black flies.
“Thank you for making sure we got back okay,” Tori said, shaking Matt’s hand.
“It was my pleasure.” Hailey wasn’t so sure, but she smiled anyway when he turned to shake her hand. “Make sure you put something on those blisters when you get home.”
“I thought I hid the limping better than that.” His hand felt huge and hard, but the firm squeeze had just the right amount of pressure.
“I was starting to wonder if I’d have to give you a piggyback ride out of the woods.”
Shaking his hand was one thing, but jumping on this man’s back and wrapping her legs around his waist? Strangely heat-inducing but was never going to happen. “Well we’re out now. Thanks.”
It didn’t escape Hailey’s attention that Matt stood at the edge of the parking lot, where the dirt met the trees, and watched them until the car was started and they were on their way. Probably because she was watching him in the mirror.
“You should have asked for his satellite phone number,” Tori said, nudging Hailey with her elbow.
She groaned. “No.”
“If you got laid, this day wouldn’t have been a waste.”
“I’m not going to talk about my sex life.” There wasn’t anything to talk about. “At least the gossips in Whitford will have something to talk about for a while.”
Tori’s mouth turned down at the corners. “We don’t have to tell them.”
“We skipped out on movie night for this, so they’ll ask about it.”
On the first Saturday of every month, some of the women gathered without men or kids to watch a movie and, since it had been Hailey’s turn to host, she hadn’t been able to simply skip it. She’d had to explain about the adventure tour and how the first weekend in May was the only opening they had, thanks to a cancellation.
“We don’t have to tell them every single detail,” Tori said.
“The fact you believe that is proof enough you weren’t born and raised in Whitford. Trust me. We’re going to be famous.”